Sticky Fingers Make the Show
Published March 28, 2013
By Melena Ryzik
The art heist began, as art heists should, with a planning session in a nearby bar. Though he had already committed more than 60 such thefts, the perpetrator, Adam Parker Smith, a 34-year-old Brooklyn artist, was nervous. “Everyone whose work I like and who I respect, I’ve been lying to and stealing from,” he said, sipping a beer.
Nonetheless he proceeded to the Bushwick studio of an artist he knew,Aaron Williams. It was a scheduled but informal visit, with subterfuge its agenda: Mr. Parker Smith intended to swipe Mr. Williams’s work for his own artistic ends.
Well practiced, he strategically left his leather satchel, holding various-size folders he could stash things in, by the studio door, along with the beer he had brought to relax his mark. Two minutes in, he offered Mr. Williams one, popping the top with his belt buckle. As Mr. Williams showed off his canvases, the two delved into the problems of contemporary artists. “How do you deal with people asking about your relationship to pop iconography?” Mr. Parker Smith asked, studying a large poster of James Dean overlaid with purple stripes.
Soon Mr. Williams was chattily uncovering smaller mock-ups — perfectly sized for filching. Mr. Parker Smith shuffled through, making piles, three-card-Monte-style, the better to distract from whatever went missing. Several beers later Mr. Williams excused himself to go to the bathroom, and Mr. Parker Smith simply slipped an original artwork into his bag.
“I hope he didn’t need that,” Mr. Parker Smith said later, safely in a getaway car with his accomplice for the night, a reporter.
Mr. Williams’s piece, a landscape collage, appears in “Thanks,” a show opening under Mr. Parker Smith’s name Friday at the Lu Magnus gallery on the Lower East Side. The exhibition is made up entirely of works Mr. Parker Smith meticulously stole from 77 artists: paintings, sculptures, sketchbooks, video, architectural objects, artmaking devices and more. Equal parts group show and conceptual installation, prank and boundary-pusher, it raises messy art world questions about aesthetic ownership and influence, the division between curator and artist, and the value of nontraditional and repurposed work. And it reveals something about how artists generate ideas.
For Mr. Parker Smith, who trained as a painter and sculptor and holds an M.F.A. from Temple University, friends and colleagues — the gamut of the New York art scene — are essential to his conceptual pieces. “The project has this gimmick, that I’m stealing from everybody, but it’s really about community,” he said. “Appropriation and theft are part of that.” Scoff if you like. “I feel like so many of my ideas start out as jokes,” he said, “for better or worse.”
Lauren Scott Miller, a founder and director of Lu Magnus, was one of the handful of people apprised of Mr. Parker Smith’s artistic thievery in the five months it took. She said she “agreed immediately” to host the show after he described it. As gallerists “one of our missions is to bring the creative community together,” she said, “and we’re very interested in process — in terms of this show, each artist’s individual practice and how they influence each other.” She thought of Mr. Parker Smith as both curator and conceptual artist: “He’s very thoughtful about each acquisition.”
The artists were notified of the thefts several weeks ago in an e-mail. “Your work is being held in a secure and climate controlled environment,” Mr. Parker Smith wrote. (It was stored in his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to which he’d added extra renter’s insurance.) “I chose to acquire your work in this unconventional manner to bring attention to the community that we all work within and the diverse methodology in which we share, appropriate and occasionally steal ideas and materials. I value your practice and work and think of you as an important member of my creative world.” He followed up with a phone call, expressing contrition.
That helped, Mr. Williams said. He hadn’t noticed that his piece, “Two Mountains III,” was missing. “I felt, like, slightly stupid,” he said. “It was a convincing crime.” But he was more tickled than hurt. Likewise Alfred Steiner, an artist and lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, whose glass and silver “Ring Pop” is one of the most expensive pieces in the show. “Any difficulty I had that he had breached a trust was overwhelmed by the humor I found in the overall project,” he said, adding that he considered it merely borrowing. All 77 artists gave permission to have their work displayed.
In 90 studio visits Mr. Parker Smith did not always leave with purloined treasure, but he was caught just once, he said, by an artist’s 5-year-old daughter, who ratted him out to daddy. That artist’s work is not in the show. A collector who is a lawyer also offered legal counsel, advising him not to amass more than $80,000 worth of pilfered stuff. But his kleptomania was boundless. From Naama Tsabar, whose studio space he rents, he took a piece akin to a Molotov cocktail, but made with an open liquor bottle — a hard thing to sneak out with. From his art dealer in San Francisco he nabbed a stash of pricey marijuana, going through a reality-show’s worth of high jinks to avoid physically transporting it across the country. And from his pregnant girlfriend, Carolyn Salas, a sculptor who teaches moldmaking at Yale, he stole something entirely personal and unexpected: her mouth guard.
“This is a mold of the inside of her body,” he said, delighted. Ms. Salas: “Really, you picked that, of all things? Couldn’t you have taken something better? I think it’s pretty disgusting.” She knew about the project from the start, and it made her uneasy. “Mostly I was worried that people would hate him,” she said, “and, in turn, not like me.” (They live together so she knew she was an easy target, but she really thought the mouth guard was lost.)
“Thanks” follows a period in which Mr. Parker Smith was audacious in collecting ideas. He visited psychics, asking them what he would make next, but found them insufficiently creative minded. “They all wanted to tell me about my cholesterol,” he said. About a year ago he simply bought an idea, paying the artist Brent Birnbaum $200 for the suggestion to make a pair of Kanye West’s slitted sunglasses out of Venetian blinds. (They’ve been on view at the Ever Gold Gallery in San Francisco, priced around $10,000.) He also let other contacts know he was in the market for inspiration. “This one guy wrote me,” he recalled, “and said, ‘Buying ideas is for suckers, why not just steal them like everybody else?’ ”
So even the idea for “Thanks” is appropriated, in its fashion. “I give him credit for coming up with new ways of working,” said Mr. Birnbaum, a close friend who doesn’t mind their dynamic. “He’s always short of ideas, and I always have too many.”
A $100 limited-edition “Gagosian” baseball hat Mr. Birnbaum made was lifted for the show. Many artists decided to consign their work for “Thanks”; should it sell, Mr. Parker Smith will get a cut, but out of the gallery’s fee, not the artist’s. (At $36, the mouth guard is the cheapest item; the gallery owner called it her favorite.)
For Mr. Parker Smith the project has been surprisingly discomfiting, and rewarding. “Ideas, and our creativity — that’s the most valuable thing I have, as an artist,” he said. “For me to give that up was actually very powerful.” He paused, considering his bravura display of stolen ambition. “What the hell am I going to do next?”